From Sandy to Sandy Hook: The Moral Urgency For Action Even When It Appears ‘The Politics Are Too Hard’

I have a daughter almost as old as those who were senselessly killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, so my heart goes out to all the victims.

She is also why I fight so hard for climate action. As Obama said in his powerful speech at the Sandy Hook interfaith prayer vigil:

With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice.  And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them.  They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments.  And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.

And we know we can’t do this by ourselves…. we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.

This is our first task — caring for our children.  It’s our first job.  If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.  That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations?  Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm?  Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?

Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no.  We’re not doing enough.  And we will have to change.

Dave Roberts at Grist has already noted that many of Obama’s words could have been written in a speech about the moral necessity for climate action, in an eloquent post, “Newtown: Tragedy, empathy, and growing our circle of concern.” I share Roberts’ (and Obama’s) call for “a basic shift in moral perspective.”

The reason Obama’s words at Sandy Hook also speak to the moral urgency of climate action is, I think, because the president has been thinking a great deal about his legacy since winning re-election, thinking about his second-term agenda in terms of how it affects future generations.

The language he used at Sandy Hook clearly echoes a new interview in Time (done before the shooting) on his second term agenda:

My primary focus is going to continue to be on the economy, on immigration, on climate change and energy….

Well, it’s a cliché, but it’s obviously true that for any parent, as you watch your kids age, you are reminded that everything you do has to have their futures in mind. You fervently hope they’re going to outlive you; that the world will be better for them when you’re not around. You start thinking about their kids.

And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind, that weighs on you. And not to mention the fact I think that generation is much more environmentally aware than previous generations.

There is that sense of we’ve got to get this right, and at least give them a fighting chance. In the same way that as a parent you recognize that no matter what you do, your kids are going to have challenges — because that’s the human condition — but you don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices. They’ll have enough bad choices that they make on their own that you don’t want them inheriting the consequences of bad choices that you make. We have to think about that as a society as a whole.

You could almost flip the two speeches.

Except that, in the wake of the umpteenth senseless gun tragedy, Obama used the bully pulpit to publicly commit himself to action no matter how tough it might seem:

“In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens … in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

He explicitly rejected the notion that “the politics are too hard.”

But for climate, no public speeches, no clarion call to action at all cost.

The warming-worsened monster storm Sandy has clearly moved public opinion, but, barring filibuster reform, we will need 60 Senators for serious action — and that means some Senate Republicans — not to mention support from House Republicans as long as they retain the majority, which could be for many years.

Let me be clear that there is no direct analogy between Sandy Hook and Sandy. They are utterly different tragedies. Guns obviously directly caused the former (yes, I know people kill people — with guns in this case) whereas the connection between carbon pollution and the latter’s devastation, while scientifically  straightforward (see here and here), is much less obvious.

It does appear that Sandy Hook, combined with the endless series of recent mass shootings, has perhaps crossed a tipping point that allows public will to translate into policy. Unlike mass shootings, climate disasters are certain to get more destructive and more frequent until we take very aggressive action to cut carbon pollution.

So that raises the question, how bad do things have to get before Obama speaks out? These are similar questions to the ones I posed earlier this month, “What Are the Near-Term Climate Pearl Harbors? What Will Take Us from Procrastination To Action?

As I wrote in that post, “The [climate] Pearl Harbors are here. The Churchills and FDRs aren’t.” Action to restrict the most lethal guns, assault weapons, can be contemplated now only because the president of the United States has used the bully pulpit to put the issue on the table, because he said he would use “whatever power this office holds” to prevent more tragedies like it.

Imagine if Obama had gone to the areas in New York and New Jersey devastated by Sandy and delivered stirring words about the moral urgency for climate action.

We all love our children deeply and would do anything to reduce serious risks to their well-being. The intense media and political focus on Sandy Hook is in large part because the victims were very young children. The intense focus on the national debt is in large part because of the burden it places on our children.

So why is there climate silence? Why is there so much callousness and willful ignorance when it comes to a purely preventable threat that will affect far more of our children in far harsher ways?

47 Responses to From Sandy to Sandy Hook: The Moral Urgency For Action Even When It Appears ‘The Politics Are Too Hard’

  1. John Mason says:

    Asking the right questions there Joe, for sure….

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Another difference of both events is the media coverage time, indepth reporting and pressure + actions taken place. This kind of reporting is most of the time absent when it comes to weather extremes like “Sandy”. Most of the time media is still not connecting the rise of extremes to Global Warming.

    And this is probably the main reason for years of inaction.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Well said Joe

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “The endless series” – that seems to be the real difference so far as it fits with how people’s minds make sense of things. I thought Sandy might do it for climate change as the US has had a recent series but only a handful made the leap. Good thing the rest of the series will come along soon, ME

  5. prokaryotes says:

    The motive of Adama Lanza as i interpret it, might be tied to a lack of inclusion. And this lack of inclusion is also visible in today’s society, divided by the rich and the poor. When you then consider the studies on violence in general and heat, add a lot of guns you can see were we heading.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Sociologists see strong links between crime and social exclusion in industrialized societies such as the United States.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Sociologists see strong links between crime and social exclusion in industrialized societies such as the United States. Growing crime rates may reflect the fact that a growing number of people do not feel valued in the societies in which they live. The socially excluded population cannot meet the standards of economic status and consumption that are promoted within society. Therefore legitimate means are bypassed in favor of illegal ones. Crime is favored over the political system or community organization. Young people increasingly grow up without guidance and support from the adult population. Young people also face diminishing job opportunities to sustain a livelihood. This can cause a sense of willingness to turn to illegitimate means of sustaining a desired lifestyle.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    In a report suggesting that Senate Democrats are likely to have the 51 votes necessary to reform the filibuster next month

  9. Could not agree more with this great post from Joe. We discussed this very same issue, along with news that 2012 is going down as the hottest year on record in the US, on our radio show today. Check it out at

  10. Nell says:

    Money. That’s why.

  11. M Tucker says:

    What gets me is it took 20 1st graders to get ANYONE to even talk about the expired assault weapon ban or high capacity clips. So is that how the country and Washington works. Body count and age? Really? All the other massacres don’t move anyone to action???

    They are so timid about gun control that they wait until “America” seems to call for action. They seem equally timid about meaningful action on climate change. Too bad that climate catastrophies are NEVER viewed as “preventable.”

  12. Ken Barrows says:

    Interesting. So who’s for getting rid of corporate globalism, pronto? If not, how will this trend change?

  13. prokaryotes says:

    This trend can only be reversed with more social justice, less dividing of the rich and poor, otherwise Global Warming will exaggerate problems to the point when civil unrest breaks out. Likely past after the threshold of resources shortages, “food riots”: And i strongly believe there is no force in the world to stop this, unless we balance society before and act on climate change. These are the same mechanics at work which contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

  14. Gillian says:

    Thanks for the interesting comparison between the two issues. Like many people, Sandy Hook raised my outrage even though I’m not American. But then I calmed down and decided that US gun culture their business.

    US gun culture affects Americans, but US govt inaction on climate change affects everyone in the world – that makes it everyone’s business.

    And which problem is worse – US deaths by firearm or the death and devastation from catastrophic climate change? Suddenly I see one of those images that try to compare the size of the sun with the size of the earth – a giant circle and a pinprick.

    Americans need to put some energy into better regulation of firearms, but for the rest of us, it is a pinprick distraction from the REAL issue.

  15. D. R. Tucker says:

    It looks as though the year of extreme weather we are wrapping up is going to go down as the hottest year on record. We’ll get more on that and discuss the implications with Andrew Freedman, senior science writer at Climate Central. In our next segment we’ll chat with Marty Essen, author of the award-winning book, Cool Creatures Hot Planet, Exploring the Seven Continents. And Rabbi Jonathan Neril, Founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. The center uses education and activism to tap into the collective wisdom of the world’s religions to promote peace, co-existence and sustainability. Never needed more than right now!

  16. Leif says:

    Violence is endemic in Western society. The very foundation of Western Capitalism is founded on the rape and pillage of Earth’s natural resources and the ability of the chosen few to pollute the commons for personal gains. This inequity leads directly to the “haves” and the clean up crew, i.e. “socially enabled capitalism.” Exploited masses tend to lash out mindlessly. Proliferation of guns accentuate their actions.

  17. Ozonator says:

    A Christmas death threat from Roy ‘d-rage’ Spencer, on the boards of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and the George C. Marshall Institute –

    “Our Chaotic Climate System … December 14th, 2012 … Unless they start behaving a little more like objective scientists, I predict that global warming researchers are living on borrowed time” (homepage of Looter Limbaugh’s hired liar, Roy’d-rage’ Spencer; racketeering and Wormwoody star perfuming/performing the stink for leading extremist Republicans and Christians;

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Spot on Leif and now we pay but it isn’t with silly old money, ME

  19. mulga mumblebrain says:

    The MSM, a propaganda system for the global parasite elite that owns it entirely, will always be an obstacle to climate sanity because the fossil fuel business is the central source of wealth and power in capitalism.

  20. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    A series that will run and run, with constant repeats, attacks of deja vu and deja prevu and ‘Groundhog Days’ long into the future. Don’t know that it will rate highly, but it will be on all channels, 24/7/365.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    And we won’t be able to turn it off, ME

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    They won’t go away but as their ranks dwindle they will behave more and more like the cult that they actually are, ME

  23. atcook27 says:

    MM, you are are profit of wisdom my friend.

  24. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    Like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’, or the TVs in ‘1984’.

  25. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    Social exclusion, poverty and misery will grow like topsy in the USA now that we can see the parameters of Obama’s typical ‘compromise’ over the ‘fiscal cliff’ imbroglio. Austerity and welfare cuts that will hit the poorest and weakest hardest. Why am I not in the least surprised? This utter horror is but a taste of what is to come.

  26. Mulga mumblebrain says:

    It’s not how Washington works. When the dead children are ‘collateral damage’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen or Gaza, ‘Washington’ is actually quite enthusiastic, not indifferent.

  27. Paul Klinkman says:

    Climate change may be about a disaster of nearly unimaginable consequences (what do you mean, South Florida simply disappeared yesterday?) but it’s always a can to be kicked down the road by each Congress and each Doha. Also, the opposition has been making terabucks off of their proven fossil fuel reserves and that’s a big obstacle to forward progress in our for-sale electoral system.

    A classroom of dead kindergarten kids apparently has a clear, easy-to-implement answer — don’t put assault weapons in the hands of mentally disturbed people. Moreover, the victims can’t be blamed. They’re all 5 years old and they were cute.

    Our country revolves around telethons built around cute children currently with horrid diseases, kids that you can film.

    In practice, nothing was ever done about the last ten mass shootings. Excuse my cynicism, but perhaps nothing will ever be done, even with cute poster kids.

  28. Joan Savage says:

    Once more with feeling

    — for about half a century, weather satellites have forewarned huge populations of hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding. Without the crucial forewarning, many lives would have been lost.

    I’m not saying anything new up to this point, but consider how emotional it would be if we’d lost thousands of lives to Hurricane Sandy. It would feel more like Sandy Hook.

    As for Sandy Hook, people are aching to have had some mental health forewarning and gun control, that like a weather satellite and a levee, could have made a difference.

  29. Edith Wiethorn says:

    The following link from George Monbiot via the Guardian & Permiculture Research Institute International connects the dots between the children shot in Newtown, Connecticut & the children blasted in Pakistan by the drones deployed by the Obama Administration. It believe it is a *mental health forwarning* for American society. I have never read a more powerful statement on current events.

  30. Mark E says:

    Joe, I fondly remember the post of you jointing the Tea Party. My girl is the same age, and we were very moved by events at Sandy Hook.

    But when we heard Obama’s powerful “whatever power this office holds” speech, the climate silence became even more shocking than the shooting.

  31. fj says:

    The disease of inaction when common sense must prevail will destroy this nation.

  32. Jakob Wranne says:

    Tip, not connected to article above:

    The New Zealand Herald

    “Rapid rise in Arctic methane shocks scientists”

  33. PeterM says:

    Social inequality throughout history has always caused unrest and economic decline. Look at 1929- the last year of the roaring 20s. People believed that there would be never ending ‘prosperity’. But looking beneath this ‘boom’ of the 20s- there was a growing gap between the well off and the rest of the population. The wealth gap reached its peak in 1929. Farmers throughout the 20s dealt with a depression of their own.

    The lack of regulations in the banking system and stock market, inadequate safety nets (for years big business had opposed any kind of old age pensions or unemployment relief made the decline from 1929-1939 much worse. Today we are thinking of cutting SS and other programs while the rich still have the lowest tax rates since 1925?

    We have little money repairing an aging infrastructure in the face of a climate becoming more hostile. There will be abrupt changes forthcoming- and the pain will be far worse then the American populace faced in the 1930s- and it will last for decades- as Paul Gilding says in the ‘Great Disruption’- only he now is far too optimistic about mitigation starting within a few years on emissions.

  34. Jakob Wranne says:

    Sorry. False alarm. The article is one year old. Even worse. What is the situation today?

  35. prokaryotes says:

    From a recent AGU paper (The current methane trend continues for the time “gradual” but this could change…)

    NOAA explorers discover deepwater gas seeps off U.S. Atlantic coast

  36. prokaryotes says:

    Tipping Points in Earth Climate System (2012 Arctic Methane Special)

  37. Joan Savage says:

    I can stand not having a quotable Churchill or FDR at this time provided we can have a Cesar Chavez (United Farm Workers union) or a Nelson Mandela to lead the popular movement.

    Bill McKibben is coming along.

    The politicians with silver tongues can run to catch up.

  38. paul magnus magnus says:

    Nice if u could get an article in the Times.

  39. SecularAnimist says:

    Why is there climate silence?

    Because the fossil fuel corporations have vastly more money with which to buy politicians than does the NRA.

  40. sault says:

    “So why is there climate silence? Why is there so much callousness and willful ignorance when it comes to a purely preventable threat that will affect far more of our children in far harsher ways?”


    “The warming-worsened monster storm Sandy has clearly moved public opinion, but, barring filibuster reform, we will need 60 Senators for serious action — and that means some Senate Republicans — not to mention support from House Republicans as long as they retain the majority, which could be for many years.”

    Obama could pound the bully pulpit and fill the airwaves until he’s blue in the face talking about climate change and it would do NOTHING to change the dysfunctional nature of the Senate and the gerrymandered-to-all hell makeup of the House.

    Until we get filibuster reform and get independent redistricting in all 50 states, we will still have this problem. Until we stop the never-ending campaign cycle and the incessant fundraising it requires, with corporate cash playing an increasing role, we will still have this problem. Until we see massive civil action and people protesting in the streets demanding climate action, we will still have this problem. As long as the media keeps putting nonscientific corporate propaganda on the same level as established science, we will still have this problem. And until we change the makeup of Congress to get rid of enough fossil fuel stooges and put in enough legislators that actually care about the future of the human race more than the next election, we will not see any meaningful action on climate change.

  41. Solar Jim says:

    Sandy Hook and Storm Sandy are analogous in several ways, such as:

    1) They are both tragic “wrong turns”
    2) Bullets and carbonic acid gas and liquid are both the result of explosive materials. Much of the US “energy system” is based on combustion or fission into contaminants
    3) Climate impacts are trending toward a fatal extinction event. Ignition of lithospheric carbon (as well as other perverse activities) into a couple trillion tons total equivalent of carbonic acid gas contamination of the ecosphere is impacting the planet like a bullet does a child. A century or two for the planet is the equivalent of instantaneous. Impact is analogous.
    4) Pathological behavior, enabled by unrestrained, encouraged or subsidized technical power from explosives (bullets and fossils)

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Inequality, as great as society will bear (and with modern surveillance, policing and ‘anti-terrorism’ measures it is being built to bear a lot)is the very raison d’etre of capitalism. Capitalism is the organised theft of wealth from the many and from the natural world by the very few, and levels of inequality must always rise under ‘free markets’. There was a brief hiatus in this process during the 20th century, particularly after WW2, in some Western countries, driven by fear of Communism, but, since that threat was seen off, inequality, poverty, misery, want, insecure employment, diminishing life opportunities etc, have all grown like topsy, and are growing more rapidly with every passing day. The tiny elite flaunt their conspicuous excess, their flotillas of yachts, their gargantuan and entirely larcenous salaries and bonuses, their chorus-lines of trophy wives and children, their archipelagoes of luxury homes and their total control of politics and the MSM, and the 99% increasingly have to scrabble about for scraps that fall from the kakistocrats’ High Table.

  43. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And the world.

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Because the fossil fuel industry and the tens of trillions in ‘assets’ that it has on its books are the very foundation of global capitalism, elite wealth and elite power. Tamper will the fossil fuel business and you stir a hopper ants’ nest (you DO NOT want to do that!). Close down fossil fuels in order to decarbonise and survive, and capitalism collapses.

  45. Raul M. says:

    Now that corporations are people, should they be held for mental deficiencies such as duel personalities. Such as the motive to make profits with oil exploration in the Arctic and the need to have geoengeenering to refreeze the Arctic. Both goals are deemed necessary but the oil company wants to have a healthy Arctic and to be able to Oil exploor.

  46. Solar Jim says:

    While your description is prescient, the moniker “capitalism” seems incomplete. This year’s global public fiscal subsidies of around $600 billion for fossil extraction, infrastructure and ignition is hardly on the basis of “free-market capitalism,” any more than (insurance) indemnification is for any atomic fission state. All mechanically weaponized nation-states centrally plan for their fuels-of-war, which are based on the explosives of fossil and fissile substances. In civilian economics, this has less to do with “capitalism,” and much to do with another “ism” beginning with the letter “f,” or the more palatable “corporatism.”

  47. goldminor says:

    Unfortunately, forewarning is hard to come by in determining who is close to snapping or why. With Lanza, we will probably never know his inner motivations. I am not so sure that it would matter anyway. Law enforcement in Missouri did catch one crazy that same morning, though. We do get some of them ahead of time. That is encouraging.